We Should Stop Chasing Economic “Progress”
Capitalist societies believe in the possibility of endless growth. But Plato and other classical philosophers would have begged to differ.
What’s the Big Idea?
Whether or not they consider themselves politically “progressive,” many Americans reflexively expect their country to make robust progress along economic lines. Buoyed by decades of material growth, we expect GDP to rise and standards of living to improve indefinitely. If these trends stagnate—as they’ve begun to during the current recession—pundits on all sides point fingers, assuming that something has gone terribly wrong.
But according to John Dillon, former classics professor at Trinity College, Dublin, classical thinkers would have found this assumption misguided. “This concept of progress,” Dillon explains to Big Think, “is so deeply ingrained in our psyches that it is hard for modern man to comprehend a culture in which no such concept is present….[But] among Greek and Roman intellectuals, it was fully recognized that nations and societies had their ups and down, that empires rose and fell….It was universally accepted that change in the physical world was cyclical: some new inventions were made from time to time, predominantly in the area of warfare, populations might increase locally, and cities, such as Alexandria, Rome, or Constantinople, grow to great size…but all this would be balanced by a decline somewhere else.”
This recognition of natural balance was more than a shrug of philosophical acceptance. For thinkers like Plato, it was fundamentally relevant to the question of how societies could best be organized. In The Republic and The Laws, Plato sketches visions of an ideal state, but offers no prescriptions for ever-increasing prosperity. Rather, he portrays societies that have achieved a harmonious—and stable—equilibrium in their population, politics, and economy.
While cautioning that “I would not for a moment advocate a full dose of Platonism for a modern state,” Dillon does believe that contemporary society should embrace Plato’s ideal of stability as opposed to progress. He warns that we’ve already begun to witness the fruit of a growth-at-all-costs mentality: resource wars (including, in his view, Iraq) and untold environmental destruction. Accordingly, he advocates stringent worldwide anti-pollution laws and recommends “pay[ing] very serious attention” to Plato’s “insistence on limiting production…to necessities rather than luxuries.” Against the ideal of ever-increasing wealth, he suggests that citizens and their governments should espouse the Platonic vision “of a modest sufficiency of material goods.”
Fenton Communications CEO Lisa Witter would agree that capitalism’s promise of progress has become an article of faith—and a dangerous one. In a 2008 interview with Big Think she argued that global capitalism has “run amok,” and that the problem of how to “continue to have growth without using up all of our natural resources” is becoming unmanageable:
What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.
- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
- Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
We were gaining three IQ points per decade for many, many years. Now, that's going backward. Could this explain some of our choices lately?
There's a new study out of Norway that indicates our—well, technically, their—IQs are shrinking, to the tune of about seven IQ points per generation.
An ordained Lama in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, Lama Rod grew up a queer, black male within the black Christian church in the American south. Navigating all of these intersecting, evolving identities has led him to a life's work based on compassion for self and others.
- "What I'm interested in is deep, systematic change. What I understand now is that real change doesn't happen until change on the inside begins to happen."
- "Masculinity is not inherently toxic. Patriarchy is toxic. We have to let that energy go so we can stop forcing other people to do emotional labor for us."
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